Loretta Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor, is the new face of the Honolulu Police Commission, marking a significant change in leadership for the oversight agency.
On Wednesday, the commission voted unanimously to make Sheehan the new chairwoman despite attempts to delay a decision until a seventh member could be seated on the board.
Sheehan will replace Commissioner Max Sword, who has held the position since December 2016. Sword, whose term expires Dec. 31, 2020, will continue to serve as a commissioner.
Commissioner Steven Levinson, a retired associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court, was picked as the vice chair.
Shortly after being nominated, Sheehan said she would shift the culture of the commission to be more engaged in the community and the political process in general.
Instead of relying solely on the chair to make decisions and address concerns at the Legislature or City Council, she said she wants to rely on each commissioner’s professional expertise — whether it’s in business, law or politics — to move the department forward.
“I don’t want to be the only person speaking for this commission,” Sheehan said.
She also wants Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, who has been the head of the department for only four months, to take advantage of the commissioners’ individual skills as she pulls the department out of scandal and dusts off its reputation.
Sheehan said she’d also like to improve the commission’s investigative process when it comes to handling citizen complaints against officers.
But more than anything, Sheehan said, she wants her colleagues to feel free to debate.
“We are allowed to disagree, we are allowed to have differences of opinion,” Sheehan said. “What unites us all in this room is that we want the best police department in the country.”
Commissioner Jerry Gibson, the vice president of Hilton Hotels in Hawaii, initially said he didn’t want to vote on a new chair or vice chair until newly appointed Commissioner Shannon Alivado had the chance to weigh in.
Alivado, government affairs director for the General Contractors Association, is expected to attend her first meeting in early March.
But Levinson pushed back on Gibson’s proposal, saying that the commission has delayed making a decision for too long.
Levinson said the last time the commission voted for a new chair was in December 2016, which was his first meeting on the oversight board.
“I knew in advance who the new chair was going to be and that was that,” Levinson said.
“We need to figure out how to get out of the Kealoha umbrella. The other shoe hasn’t dropped yet and it will.” — Commissioner Karen Chang
He noted that in order for any commission decision to take hold four votes are needed regardless of how many members of the seven-person commission are present.
With six of the seven members at Wednesday’s meeting, Levinson said the likelihood of a stalemate was low.
“The probability that there would be four votes for a single person at this meeting is fairly great,” Levinson said. “We simply cannot afford to delay what ought to have happened three months ago any more. The worst case scenario, if we go forward today, is that the vote is split three to three.”
The retired judge wasn’t alone in his frustration.
Commissioner Karen Chang, a local health care executive, said it was obvious to her that a change in leadership was needed, and she didn’t want to wait any longer.
She said the “optics” of the status quo would only serve to diminish the commission’s credibility in the community, especially in light of how it responded to the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into former police chief Louis Kealoha.
“We need to figure out how to get out of the Kealoha umbrella,” Chang said. “The other shoe hasn’t dropped yet and it will.”
Kealoha was indicted in October along with his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, and four HPD officers. Among the allegations are that they framed Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for the theft of their mailbox in an attempt to gain the upper hand in a family dispute over money.
A fifth officer has already pleaded guilty to taking part in the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has continued its grand jury investigation into alleged corruption within local law enforcement, including at the city prosecutor’s office.
Those close to the investigation believe that more indictments are likely.
“I know it was not always smooth. But we did move forward and we did accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.” — Commissioner Max Sword
Sword joined Gibson in trying to sway his fellow commissioners to delay the vote until Alivado comes on board in two weeks. He argued it would be more fair to Alivado, and better for the commission.
“Over the last year we’ve talked about being inclusive and talked about being transparent and all the good stuff that goes along with that,” Sword said. “So why not include the seventh member?”
But a majority of the the commission voted to move ahead with the selection process.
Gibson then nominated Sword to another term as chairman.
Sword swiftly declined the nomination. It was clear Sheehan would have the votes.
Sword’s time as commission chairman is best described as turbulent.
Shortly after he took the helm Kealoha was named a target of the DOJ’s corruption probe.
Instead of firing the chief — a power only the commission has — Sword worked to negotiate a lucrative retirement deal that included a $250,000 cash payment.
The commission ultimately signed off on the agreement, which also included a provision that Kealoha was retiring in “good standing.”
The outgoing chief would also be allowed to keep his pension, which was estimated to cost taxpayers about $150,000 in addition to health benefits.
Sheehan was the only commissioner to vote against the deal.
Sword continued to grab headlines in the weeks and months that followed while the commissioners sought a replacement for Kealoha.
First, he asked Beth Chapman — who’s perhaps best known as the wife of celebrity bail bondsman “Dog The Bounty Hunter” — to be a community liaison in the selection process.
Then, in the middle of the candidate vetting process, it was revealed that Sword was related by marriage to one of the finalists. He eventually recused himself.
There were also concerns about whether the commission was following the law when it came to holding contested case hearings behind closed doors to decide whether officers accused of misconduct would receive taxpayer-funded legal counsel.
Both Sheehan and Levinson contended that the public had a constitutional right to witness those proceedings, while Sword often found himself leaning the other way.
“I didn’t seek to be the chair last year and I appreciated the opportunity,” Sword said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I know it was not always smooth. But we did move forward and we did accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.”